Three Angoon teen-agers who researched Native language immersion programs for a school project have sparked an interest in forming a Tlingit program at the Admiralty Island community's school.
"Our parents don't even know our language," said Demetrius Johnson, a junior this year at the 37-student high school. "And part of the reason, we think, is the school system. They wouldn't let our parents speak the language.
"They got whacked in the hand if they spoke Tlingit. They just stopped passing it along because they didn't want their kids to be hit," he said.
The students - Demetrius Johnson, Kenny Johnson and Stuart Jack - visited Juneau last month to see the Tlingit language and culture program at a kindergarten and first grade class at Harborview Elementary as it neared the end of its first year. There they saw children singing the Tlingit national anthem and other songs.
The Angoon students learned that it's hard for the teachers to make the Tlingit-related materials, which aren't otherwise available.
"They need a lot of time and a lot of money in this, step by step," said Angoon teacher Maria Offer.
The Angoon students, who won a $250 grant from the Write to Change program at Clemson University in South Carolina, surveyed their largely Native community of about 575 people, and found that nearly every respondent wanted a Tlingit program for grades kindergarten through 12.
Community support is essential because the Tlingit-speaking teachers will have to come from the community, said Cheryl Stickler, a teacher in Klukwan, which began a Tlingit program about five years ago.
"The main thing is if it's important enough to the community, it will be important enough to make commitments to," Stickler said.
Using elder volunteers is desirable anyway because they are the ones who also know the culture.
"Learning the language barely scratches the surface of Tlingit training," said Ruth Kasko, a Klukwan elder, in a statement she supplied the school. "We need the language to even begin to understand how things tie together.
"It's hard to explain in English. It's hard to express how intense Tlingit training can be. You don't learn everything when you're young. Tlingit language makes a Tlingit person," she said.
Four elders from Klukwan, a predominantly Native community of about 140 near Haines, regularly teach Tlingit to the 16 students in kindergarten through grade 12. The school's other teacher, Lani Hotch, learned Tlingit for the program, and Stickler is learning, too.
Tlingit language and culture are integrated into the daily curriculum for students up to second grade. That makes it easier for children to remember the words and concepts. Young students learn common words, clan and trade songs, dances, how to make regalia and moccasins, and ravenstail weaving.
The children don't confuse English and Tlingit, and they move among the two languages easily, Stickler said. Sometimes Tlingit helps children understand an academic concept such as numerical place values of ones and 10s. The Tlingit way of saying "53" is to say "five 10s and three," she said.
In higher grades Tlingit is taught in a formal language program, like teaching Spanish. It's not the best way to teach a language, but the teachers don't know enough Tlingit to incorporate it into other academic subjects.
The next step is to get parents to learn Tlingit, either by attending their kids' classes at school or through a formal evening program.
"In order to support the learning in school, there needs to be a family component," Stickler said.
Tlingit could become extinct without school language programs, and with it would go a lot of cultural knowledge.
"Every time an elder dies, that's just more our culture is losing," said Demetrius Johnson, the Angoon student. "And at this rate we're going to have nothing real soon but the stories in the books."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.